Today is the day that Google’s controversial changes to the Google Workspace privacy settings take effect. For paying users of Google Workspace, the organization-wide “Web & App Activity” control is being removed from the administrator control panel and will be split into two different settings. We covered this announcement two months ago, but the new privacy controls started rolling out on Tuesday.
Many confusing changes are happening. First, administrators will no longer have organization-wide control over privacy settings. It will now be up to each user in an organization to hunt down and change the settings themselves. Google will not honor your previous privacy settings when it moves the controls—organizations that previously opted out of tracking will be opted back in to some tracking, and every user will now need to opt out individually.
The second change is the settings split. The tracking previously covered by “Web & App Activity” is being broken into two controls; one is still called “Web & App Activity,” and there’s a new setting called “Search History.” The Web & App Activity setting won’t be switched back on, but since Search History has never technically existed before, it will be turned on by default for every user, even if an organization previously opted out of this tracking when it was under Web & App Activity. Again, administrators can no longer control this setting, so every user in an organization will need to shut off Search History for themselves.
You may be wondering what the settings actually do. Web & App Activity is a checkbox that allows Google to track and save almost everything you do on a Google account—that means your location, language, IP address, client info, and text and audio searches across most Google products. It also allows Google to save any ads you click on or things you buy on an advertiser’s site, plus a bunch of device info, like recent apps you’ve used, contact names you’ve recently searched for, and, if applicable, your Chrome history and Android device diagnostics.
The new “Search History” checkbox provides a special tracking carve-out specifically for “the Google Workspace services,” meaning the “business” apps like Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Contacts, Drive, Google Chat, and Keep, plus everything included in the Google Workspace terms. Search History does not include Google Search (let that one sink in) or Google Maps, YouTube, or anything else not on the Workspace terms page.
Google argues that because Workspace is a paid service and the company “never uses your data in Google Workspace core services for advertising,” users will be more comfortable turning on Search History for the Workspace apps since the data supposedly won’t be used for ad targeting. This is also why there’s no corresponding change for free consumer accounts, where activity is always used for ad data.
Dark patterns aplenty
Google chose not to enable privacy-preserving defaults, and it seems that every change will result in more tracking. If organizations opted out of tracking and want to go back to the way things were yesterday, administrators will have to email every organization member and hope they take the time to shut the setting off. Individual users are likely to be less tech-savvy than an organization’s administrator and therefore less likely to be willing to mess with these settings.
Google could have honored the previous “Web & App Activity” settings and set the obviously related Search History settings accordingly. It could have given administrators centralized control over the setting rather than leaving it up to each individual user. It could have changed the settings but left them off by default or presented users with a pop-up and made them choose. Instead, the company went with the “maximum tracking” option.
If you want to turn off the settings, head to the My Activity page, where you can control “Web & App Activity.” Google says the new “Search History” setting will be in the “Other Google activity” link in the sidebar. If you don’t see “Search History,” your organization hasn’t gotten the privacy change yet, so check back in a few days.